In the aftermath of Ye Zun’s defeat and the subsequent chaos ensuing in Dixing, Zhu Hong sat in the middle of a dusty street, cradling one of the four Hallows to her stomach. The Lantern burned brightly but gave off little warmth. She supposed it was only fair – Zhao Yunlan had been a cold fish in life, why should he be anything but corpse-cold in death?
A hand touched her shoulder, but she shook it off, curling tighter around the lit lantern. Around all that remained of Zhao Yunlan.
He was supposed to lead them into a bright future. She had been willing to sacrifice everything for him, her tribe, her Yashou heritage, her identity. Instead, he turned around and tricked her into becoming the Yashouren chief only to then waltz off and sacrifice himself like the noble, cold-hearted jackass martyr he was.
“Unacceptable,” she murmured, then hiccupped. A solitary tear ran down her cheek, dropping to hit the lantern’s glass. “Do you hear me? What about this is acceptable!”
The lantern pulsed as if in agreement.
“Just because Professor Shen went ahead and died, did you have to follow him?” The tears were running faster now, clearing her cheeks of dust and grime. “Idiot! What are we supposed to do without you, huh? What about us, the SID, Da Qing? What about your father, what about—”
Me, she didn’t say, clamping her teeth shut on a sob.
“No,” she gritted out from between clenched teeth, raising her arm to wipe ineffectively at her wet face. “I refuse to accept this.”
So what if life was unfair? She could live knowing Zhao Yunlan would never return her feelings, could come to accept him as just a friend in her life. His death, however? That was unacceptable.
After everything he’d done, everything he’d sacrificed, lao-Zhao deserved a better ending.
"Hong-jie…" a timid voice spoke up. Xiao-Guo. The hand she'd shaken off earlier. He sounded like he was choking on his own words, but whether from grief or nerves, she couldn't tell. She'd never found it easy to tell what others were feeling or when to comfort them. "He says… lao-Zhao says he's sorry. And, and not to cry."
Slowly, Zhu Hong raised her head from her sleeve, pinning Guo Changcheng with red eyes.
"You can hear him."
"Kind of?" Xiao-Guo winced, glancing over his shoulder as if he expected lao-Chu to magically appear and protect him from her temper. "Uh, I can, I know people's last wishes? But… he's not really dead so it doesn't quite… work?"
"He's not?" Zhu Hong startled, hope rising in her chest. If Zhao Yunlan wasn't dead, whether he was caught somewhere in between or dying, it meant— they still had time to save him.
"His body is still breathing," xiao-Guo pointed out, nodding behind them where Zhao Yunlan's corpse—no, not corpse, he was alive—was being nudged by a Da Qing in cat form. Somehow, she had tuned out his mournful yowling, lost in the din of earth rumbling and chaos of the street, scared Dixingren crying and huddling together. They still had a lot of work to do. "He, um, he gave his body to Zhang Shi."
Torn out of her thoughts—someone needed to organise the counting of the dead and the herding of civilians away from structurally unsound buildings—Zhu Hong frowned at xiao-Guo.
"He, um, he's a Dixingren who possessed Director Zhao until recently. His power appears to be jumping into bodies…?"
“And he dares jump into Zhao Yunlan’s!?” Zhu Hong hissed, feeling her anger rise and split her tongue, human canines growing sharp and long. Watching xiao-Guo’s face pale at her wrath, Zhu Hong squeezed her eyes shut and wrestled her powers back under control, her fingers clenching on the Guardian lantern.
No. No, this wasn’t happening.
Blinking her eyes open, Zhu Hong turned her glare onto the lantern. Zhao Yunlan’s soul was in there somewhere, burning himself up to give light back to Dixing, while some stranger stole his body, would walk around with his familiar face. Zhu Hong couldn’t take it, didn’t even want to imagine a world where it was true.
“Unacceptable,” she snarled, shaking the lantern in her grip. “Do you hear me, Zhao Yunlan? This outcome is. Not. Acceptable!”
The light in the lantern dimmed in response, tipping a bucket of ice water over Zhu Hong’s burning anger. If she broke the Hallow now, after everything Zhao Yunlan had sacrificed—
A flicker, and the flame flared up, growing brighter and brighter until Zhu Hong averted her gaze with a cry, free hand coming up to cover her eyes, the other one clinging to the lantern even as the metal grew hot under her palm, a feeling of flames licking up her arms. A tug behind her navel made her nauseous, and then she felt herself tumbling forward, taking a header, except she didn’t hit the ground, the ground was gone, there was nothing isolid but the lantern for her to hold onto—
Zhu Hong landed ass first on a grassy hill, and immediately started rolling down the slope. Cursing to herself, she clutched the lantern still in her grasp to her stomach, curling protectively around it as she rolled onto her knees and hands, head snapping up to take in her environment. Her tongue poked out, tasting the air, all senses on high alert.
Sunlight shone warm on her back, but that was no longer a sure sign whether she was in Haixing or Dixing, not since the lantern had been lit. But… she’d seen no grass or other plant life in her short visit to Dixing. Granted, she had been rather distracted by fighting Ye Zun and his forces, but instinct told her she had somehow ended up aboveground.
Somehow. Zhu Hong snorted. The damn lantern – Zhao Yunlan, the bastard – had transported her here. Why, though? What was he trying to tell her?
Zhu Hong carefully stood up, but she was alone in a grassy field full of hills. There was nothing for it, she needed to figure out where she was and go from there. Zhu Hong was grateful she’d decided to wear flat boots for the final confrontation, or else climbing up the soft earth of the hill would’ve been hell. Reaching the cusp, Zhu Hong stayed low to the ground. If it weren’t for the stupid Hallow, she would’ve considered transforming for easier reconnaissance.
There was no one to be seen nearby, no buildings or landmarks to orient herself with, but— there. Smoke rising from the trees at the foot of the mountain not too far off. Whoever was living out here, maybe they could point her in the right direction back to civilization.
She had barely made it to the treeline when she stumbled upon a person.
Yashou or Dixingren? Zhu Hong wasn’t sure – the clothes he wore looked closer to the old-fashioned robes she encountered amongst her tribes’ elders, but he looked too young for that and most of the younger generation was already shifting to more Haixingren fashion, if only to blend in when they snuck out. But she had seen similar fashion in Dixingren, mixed in with more modern clothes. All things considered, this man was likely a part of Ye Zun’s invasive force, not yet having heard about how their coup failed.
Deciding caution was the better part of valour, Zhu Hong stepped back, hoping to get around him and find another way to the camp. Except when she did, she accidentally broke a twig under her heel.
The snap alerted the warrior of her presence, and he whirled around, brandishing his weapon with startling reflexes. A spear at her throat had her rearing back, accidentally using her Yashouren powers to leap a good twenty feet away. The spearman stared after her with wide eyes, before shouting for back-up, and Zhu Hong cursed her luck. Somehow, this had to be lao-Zhao's fault, she was sure.
She adjusted her grip on the stupid lantern and lowered her stance, eyes flashing red as they darted from one armed warrior to another. Some wielded swords, some spears like the first. An arrow hissed past her head, Zhu Hong barely dodging the projectile. Fuck. Archers could take her out too easily in this open field. If she turned into a snake, vanished between the tall grass, she could ambush them one by one, but that would mean leaving the Hallow sitting like a shiny beacon, leaving it – Zhao Yunlan’s soul – defenseless…
Zhu Hong didn’t have a choice, a hail of arrows forcing her to transform. The Lantern clattered to the ground, and Zhu Hong shot forward, jaw snapping around the ankle of the first swordsman she reached. The warrior cried out in pain, and Zhu Hong tugged on his leg, causing him to fall over. She let go before he could hit the ground, already darting through the grass for the next, tangling around a spear-wielder’s legs to cause them to tumble, too. The next soldier was more careful, dancing out of her lunges, but a careless sword slash as he tried to counter brought his arm within striking range.
Bones crunched under the strength of her jaws. Zhu Hong wanted to throw up – she’d never actively hurt anyone like this, it had all been play fights and training – but she couldn’t afford to hesitate. She vanished in the tall grass, making sure to disturb it as little as she could as she made her way back to the lantern, curious what the remaining fighters would do. It had taken her mere seconds to take down three of them. Hopefully, they would see sense and retreat with their injured, leaving her to find some place else to ask for help—
A crow cawed, circling above the battlefield before heading into a dive straight at her, and Zhu Hong tensed, preparing to dodge the strike of claws.
Instead, the crow Yashou transformed into their human form, landing a couple feet away from Zhu Hong in a shower of feathers. Since he obviously knew where she was hiding, Zhu Hong reared up and hissed a warning at the crow, showing off her fangs.
“Why do you fight us, sister?” the boy – he couldn’t be more than fifteen, baby fat still clinging to his cheeks – asked, tilting his head in the uncanny way of corvids.
Zhu Hong switched into a half-snake form, tail undulating under her, raising her chance at dodging in case hostilities resumed, while also allowing her to use her human face to express exactly how unimpressed she was by the crow youth.
“They attacked me first.” Zhu Hong sniffed, crossing her arms. She turned so she could keep an eye on the lantern, lying innocuously where she’d dropped it. “Of course I defended myself.”
The crow frowned, his gaze darting to the glint of the lantern, and Zhu Hong cursed her luck. Of course the bird’s eyes would be drawn to its flickering light. The crow boy took a step forward, and Zhu Hong shifted to get between him and the lantern, but it was already too late.
The crow boy took a sharp breath. “Is that…?”
Tail curling loosely around the lantern, Zhu Hong glared at the crow boy. "And what if it is?"
The crow boy blinked, startled, gaze sharpening as he eyes Zhu Hong. Then he gestured for the warriors to step back.
"Naturally, Snake-jie is easily spooked and prone to lash out since she is on an important mission for Elder Fu. Please excuse the misunderstanding, these patrolmen were just doing their job."
Zhu Hong inclined her head warily, transforming her tail back into legs to crouch next to the lantern. Her thoughts raced through her head because— she knew all the crow elders, and none of them had the character ‘fu’ in their name. Nor had anyone from the flower or snake tribes, as far as she knew. There was only one Elder Fu the crow could refer to and that was the legendary Chief of Yashouren, Fu You. But, no, that couldn’t be. Fu You had a long life, but even by their standards, it had been millenia ago.
"I'll escort you to Elder Fu," the crow boy offered, glancing at the lantern and back at her. "Um. So you need help carrying…"
Before he could finish, Zhu Hong snatched the lantern and tugged it into her side, her short leather jacket doing a terrible job hiding it. Narrowing her eyes at the crow boy, lest he get any funny ideas, she commanded sharply, "Lead the way."
Wherever she was, she needed to convince their leader to aid her. It worried her that the boy hadn't even mentioned Ya Qing, but perhaps the lantern had dropped her off somewhere far away from Dragon City and this was a Yashou tribe that had split off from the three tribes long enough ago that they'd lost contact? It was as likely a reason why none of them recognized her, and why she recognized no familiar faces as they entered the encampment.
The lantern pulsed warmly against her side, as if it was amused by her predicament. Zhu Hong tightened her grip.
“Chief!” the crow boy called out excitedly, flapping his arms in the air as if he wanted to take off. Zhu Hong side-eyed him, a smart remark about birds and manners on the tip of her tongue. Except her mouth went dry as the woman turned around to smile at them.
Fu You. The chief who made the reluctant branch bloom. The one who led the Yashou through the war with Dixing and into a bright future of peace far removed from human concerns. The snake tribe kept an engraving of her, and the resemblance was stunning. Zhu Hong stood frozen as the legendary chief approached them with the winding grace of a noble lady, her eyes bright and curious.
“A-Yun. I see you’ve brought us a visitor.”
“Lady Fu!” The crow boy dropped to one knee, hand clasped over his heart. “This humble one found Snake-jie when checking the perimeter. There was a misunderstanding with the patrolling guard.”
“A snake?” Fu You murmured, her serene gaze sharpening as she took in Zhu Hong. Swallowing, Zhu Hong focussed and allowed her eyes to flash red, if only to prove herself Yashou. If this was indeed Fu You and not an illusion created by the Hallows, then…
“I see. Thank you, a-Yun, you’ve done well.” Fu You offered the crow a smile, then beckoned Zhu Hong to follow her. “Come along, child. I’m sure you’ve had a long journey – and a fascinating tale to tell.”
Zhu Hong followed her warily as the legendary elder led her into a large tent in the center of the encampment. A long, wooden table stood to one side, surrounded by crates and various knickknacks, while shelves stood further in the back filled with scrolls and books. The centerpiece, however, was a giant globe made of bronze plates, lit from the inside by an iridescent, turquoise glow that gave Zhu Hong pause in the entrance way. The lantern pulsed reassuring warmth into her side, giving her the courage to step into the tent.
A man was sitting at the table, his hair long and combed back, a distracted look on his face as he glanced up. Then he blinked owlishly, straightening.
“Ah, Fu You. Did… something happen?”
“We have an, ah, unusual visitor,” Fu You explained, gesturing for Zhu Hong to take a seat. “This young lady is by all appearances a snake Yashou, and yet, I don’t think we’ve ever met before.”
Zhu Hong sat down gingerly, balancing the lantern in her lap. Its glow seemed too bright for the inside of the dim tent, drawing attention. Zhu Hong was tempted to shrug out of her jacket and cover the artifact, hide it—and its precious content—from curious eyes.
“We haven’t,” she replied succinctly, wrapping her arms around the lantern securely. “My name is Zhu Hong, recently elected chief of the three surviving Yashou tribes. And you’re Fu You, Chief of Yashou in this time, right?”
“Correct,” Fu You agreed, a troubled frown passing over her delicate features. “Only three of the tribes survived?”
Zhu Hong shrugged one shoulder. “Crow, Flower, Snake. There’s also Da Qing, but he’s the last cat left and doesn’t really interact with the tribes much.”
Fu You exchanged a long, speaking look with the man at her side.
"And that artifact you're holding—is that how you came here?" the man asked, and Zhu Hong narrowed her eyes at him.
"Maybe. If you don't even recognize it, what do you care? Who even are you?"
"Ah, apologies, young lady. I'm the Lord Guardian of Haixing, Ma Gui."
Lord Guardian. Zhao Yunlan's title. Fu You interjected before Zhu Hong could figure out how she felt about another man carrying it.
"Judging by your reaction, you assumed we knew of this artifact you carry," she surmised, steepling her hands under her chin as she watched Zhu Hong with the unblinking gaze of a curious predator. "Why is that?"
"Even that crow boy recognized it, yet you're pretending you don't know?" Zhu Hong challenged them, an uncomfortable weight sinking in her stomach. "You call yourself Guardian, yet you don't know of the Guardian Lantern?"
Fu You reared back with a surprised hiss. "You are certain? It is the real thing?"
“I know what the Hallows look like, don’t treat me like I’m stupid,” Zhu Hong snapped, her grip on the lantern tightening. Her slitted gaze darted from Fu You to Ma Gui, trying to discern what game they were playing. The lack of Zhao Yunlan’s presence at her side ached like a phantom limb. Surely, he would already have figured it out.
“We don’t,” Fu You returned calmly, taking the wind out of Zhu Hong’s sails as she stared at the legendary elder.
“The Rock Yashou created them in their secret home, far below a volcano,” Fu You explained, a concerned look passing over her face. “It is troubling to hear they have not survived to your time. Perhaps they have simply withdrawn after the fighting…”
As Fu You fell into a contemplative silence, Ma Gui picked up the thread. “We sent a convoy to escort the Hallows back to our base, however, they were attacked. In the chaos, Da Qing accidentally activated the Hallows, causing an unforeseen reaction. They scattered in all four cardinal directions, we have since managed to find all of them… but one.”
He inclined his head at the lantern clutched in Zhu Hong’s grasp.
Fu You stood abruptly, gliding over to the shelves and picking up a scroll.
“Our stony cousins sent a painting of each artifact with the convoy, those we’ve managed to recover.” She unrolled the scroll unceremoniously on the table in front of Zhu Hong, who recognized the Longevity Dial and Mountain-River Awl immediately. The other two, however… “The Guardian Lantern, eternally lit with a fragment of the meteorite, does not look like the one you are holding, Chief Zhu.”
Zhu Hong stared at the pictures unblinkingly, thoughts whirling.
"I've seen the Sundial change size before," she put out there, trying to think her way through this. "It doesn't seem too far-fetched for the Hallows to adapt their form to something more… modern? Suitable to the times. Or…"
Zhu Hong trailed off, the thought too painful to finish. Fu You caught her eye.
"Or?" she pushed, her voice not unkind, but in that moment Zhu Hong hated her. Still, better to share all her knowledge and find a way forward together.
"Zhao Yunlan, my boss… you're going to meet him soon, I think, the Hallows pulled him back in time before. He" —Zhu Hong swallowed, her throat clicking dryly— "sacrificed himself. It's not the meteorite feeding the flame, now."
A piece of meteorite. If she could get her hands on one, and somehow managed to bring it to the future, where they could use it as a new wick… Perhaps, she could stop Zhao Yunlan from foolishly sacrificing his own life. The hope blooming in her chest was almost a worse ache than the grief.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Fu You offered, her voice sympathetic and diplomatic. She clasped her hands in front of her, her brows furrowing lightly in contemplation. “It might explain the difference.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, too,” Ma Gui added, rolling the scroll back up. “He must have been a great leader and hero, to sacrifice himself for the world. We will do our best to prepare him for the inevitable once he joins us here.”
“It hasn’t happened yet,” Zhu Hong pointed out sharply, sitting up straighter and setting the Lantern down on the table. The glow illuminated the Alliance leaders’ faces. “I can still save him.”
“We cannot risk changing what already happened.” Fu You frowned down at her, her tone turning reprimanding. Like an elder to a young hatchling, and Zhu Hong fought down the instinctive urge to bite. Fu You meant well, she reminded herself, no matter how itchy the suggestion alone made her scales feel.
“Time and space are fragile things, and we don’t know what the Hallows have done to twist them as such,” Ma Gui explained, glancing between the two Yashou chiefs. “Frankly, we don’t know what the Hallows are capable of, but we cannot risk it. If it already happened, trying to change it could have catastrophic consequences.”
“There is some precedent in the Yashou archives,” Fu You continued, gentling her voice. “And they all warn of meddling with fate. If your Zhao Yunlan has died, then he will have to die again, child. I’m sorry.”
"I can't accept that," Zhu Hong snapped, crossing her arms. "I'm already changing the past by being here, why should I hold back now?"
"You love him," Ma Gui said quietly, realization dawning on his face. "Don't you?"
"So what? It doesn't matter, no one deserves to burn forever instead of re-entering the wheel of reincarnation."
"It is a worthy sacrifice," Fu You opined, holding her hands up in a sign for Zhu Hong to calm her temper. She clenched her jaw and glared at Fu You, waiting for her to continue. "He has made the choice. Shouldn't you respect that?"
"Only because he saw no other way and was short on time," Zhu Hong countered, pushing to her feet. "That's something we have now—time. More than enough." She dropped her gaze to the lantern, flame flickering innocently. Her resolve firmed, and she set her jaw as she met Fu You's impenetrable stare head on. "He never gave up on me, on any of us, either. I will not fail him now."
"We don't know how your arrival here affects things," Ma Gui cautioned, looking between her and Fu You. "Considering the consequences, we should keep the changes to a minimum."
"What is destined, what is set in stone?" Zhu Hong shook her head. "If I had not come here carrying the fourth Hallow, would you ever have discovered its whereabouts? I have told you of the future, near and far, and it's changed you. Already you assume that you will win this war, and that a sacrifice is necessary so you refuse to look for other options. But what guarantee do you have?"
“But are you willing to gamble with all our lives, our future, just to revive the man you love?” Fu You questioned, her tone quiet and sharp, the sibilants coming out hissed. Zhu Hong’s attention snapped back to her. “If he would agree with that, he cannot be the great hero you speak of.”
“According to you, everything I do here has already happened,” Zhu Hong countered, settling a hand on top of the lantern. “If time is a loop, then I can only come here because I’ve come here before, right? History says the Alliance used all four Hallows to quell the rebellion, and here I am, bringing you the fourth of the Hallows.”
“And what if the only reason you managed to come here is because this Zhao Yunlan sacrificed himself for your sake?” Fu You rejoined, her gaze flashing red. Zhu Hong flashed her own eyes in response.
“Then he brought me here to fix things.” Setting her jaw stubbornly, Zhu Hong raised her head. “It is a risk he would take, how can I do any less? I understand your apprehension, Chief Fu.” Zhu Hong took a deep breath. “But maybe you’ve got it wrong. Maybe time isn’t a loop, maybe it’s a pretzel.”
“A… what?” Ma Gui interjected. Zhu Hong waved an impatient hand.
“A twisted loop. A snake coiling in and over itself before it bites its own tail. Not important.” Zhu Hong leaned forward, meeting Fu You’s gaze head-on. “I’m not asking you to support me in this. I will find a way, and if you’re right, it won’t surmount to anything. But can you scold me for trying?”
“I could,” Fu You pointed out, then shook her head, stepping down. “Yet you are not one of my snakes, but a chief in her own right. You will do as you think is best for your people.”
“Damn right I will.”
The lack of approval from someone her people looked up to as one of the greatest chiefs in their history shook her deeper than she wanted to admit, but Zhu Hong grit her teeth and pushed forward regardless. If she wanted to face herself in the mirror every morning, she had to make an attempt at the very least.
I have faith in you, Hong-jie. The thought floated through her head in Zhao Yunlan's voice, as if rising from a faint memory. Zhu Hong glanced at the lantern, watching the cheerfully dancing flame, reminding her strongly of Zhao Yunlan's teasing smile. She narrowed her eyes.
You better be grateful for this, you bastard, she thought back at the Hallow, and an impression of Zhao Yunlan's laughter echoed in her head.
Bracing herself, Zhu Hong bowed to Fu You.
“Venerated leader of the Yashouren, founder of the Alliance and general in this war we find ourselves in. I bring before you the fourth of the Hallows, the lit Guardian Lantern. In exchange, all I ask for is a piece of the meteorite it was built from.”
Zhu Hong watched from under her lashes as Fu You’s mouth pulled into a thin line at her request. Ma Gui grabbed her shoulder and squeezed it.
“This young woman is doing us a great service, handing over such a prized artifact. We still have a handful of slivers left, what harm can be done to the construct of time with a small piece?”
“A lot. Sometimes, all it takes is the flap of a butterfly’s wings.” Fu You huffed. “Very well. As a reward for your aid, we will grant you this boon and allow you to stay in our camp to recuperate, until such a time you may return to your own.”
“Thank you.” Zhu Hong bowed deeper, then stood back up. “In return, I will help until such a time may come.”
“I would rather you did as little as possible,” Fu You admitted, then shook her head. “But I cannot turn anyone away. We need all hands that are willing and able.”
Zhu Hong silently inclined her head in acknowledgement, accepting the sliver of precious metal from Ma Gui. It was about the length of her middle finger, but hopefully, she could figure out how to turn it into a proper wick for the lantern. Tonight, she would sew it into her jacket, she thought. Then she would try to find a Rock Yashou and ask them for advice on how to prepare the meteorite properly.
Maybe she should take Heipaoshi with her. Shen Wei could learn how to, so when she returned to her time, he’d know what to do.
…she should probably figure out a way to convince him not to sacrifice himself, either, or Zhao Yunlan might get himself killed in the fighting somehow regardless, rendering all her work useless. Sighing, Zhu Hong stretched out in a patch of sunlight, closing her eyes and soaking in its warmth. Ugh, men. Why were they both so stubborn?
So, new agenda. First step, teach Heipaoshi how to create a wick. Step two, figure out a way to stop Ye Zun. Easy peasy.
In the end, Zhu Hong didn’t expect that stopping Ye Zun would be the easy part. Somehow, she figured someone would have tried bitch-slapping and yelling at him before, it seemed too easy a victory. Zhu Hong wasn’t sure which part of her words resonated with him—the ‘everyone has problems, get over it’ part seemed unlikely—but the way he stared at her, baffled and offended, before his gaze darted to Heipaoshi (why did everything always come back to Shen Wei?) and he asked in an incredulous tone, “Ge? Is it true?”
Later, she would learn that she’d accidentally used her shaky hypnosis skill on Ye Zun, dislodging a buried memory that the rebel’s chieftain had hidden from him, pasting over it with lies using the same mind control ability Ye Zun then stole from him. Apparently, this entire war was Ye Zun’s version of throwing a temper tantrum because his brother didn’t love him enough.
Zhu Hong had a headache. Men.